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Emerging Colts defense preparing for toughest test of season at Kansas City

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – We’re not here to chip away at the emergence of Matt Eberflus’ defense, one that not only made the transition from one scheme to another and experienced early growing pains in the process, but has emerged as an integral part of a storybook season.

Listen to Frank Reich.

“There’s no doubt the defense is a huge part of the reason that we are where we’re at,’’ he said.

A defense that was worked over in a week 6 loss to the New York Jets and rookie quarterback Sam Darnold – 374 total yards that led to two Darnold TD passes and seven Jason Meyers’ field goals – has gotten its act together.

Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Eric Ebron, Marlon Mack and an authoritative offensive line have gotten much of the attention as the Indianapolis Colts’ have won 10 of their last 11 to earn a spot in Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game with the Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium.

But anyone overlooking Eberflus’ handiwork hasn’t been paying attention.

Over the last 11 games, the defense has been – brace yourself – among the NFL’s very best. It’s allowing 312 total yards per game, including 99 on the ground. It’s yielding a skimpy 15.5 points per game – second to Chicago’s 15.0 average yield – and five times has held the opposition to one TD or fewer. Houston hadn’t been held to single digits all season . . . until Saturday’s 21-7 wild-card loss to the Colts.

But as forceful as Eberflus’ group has been, let’s not ignore the obvious. It ain’t seen nothin’ like what’s awaiting it at Arrowhead Stadium.

“It’s going to be a great challenge,’’ he said Monday.

That was the word of the day: challenge.

“You’re dealing with an offense that is above everybody else in the stats,’’ Eberflus said. “We’ve got our hands full.’’

Hands full with Patrick Mahomes, who joined Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in the same season. His 50 TDs and 5,097 are franchise records. He twice tied Len Dawson’s team record with six TDs in a game.

“The thing that jumps out at you is arm talent,’’ Eberflus said. “The great quarterbacks of the game, if you go all the way back to the beginning and watch those guys, the two things they have is timing and accuracy. They have varying degrees of arm strength, but, man, the timing of which they throw the ball and it gets there on time, and the accuracy they have.

“This is what this young man has.’’

Hands full with Travis Kelce, who’s coming off the best of what’s been a highlight-filled career with 103 receptions, 1,336 yards and 10 TDs. His yardage total set the NFL record for tight ends, only to be surpassed a few hours later in week 17 by San Francisco’s George Kittle (1,377).

Hands full with wideout Tyreek Hill, who averaged 17.0 yards with 12 TDs on 87 receptions. He led the league with 22 catches that gained at least 25 yards, and flashed his big-play skills with TD catches of 75, 73, 67 and 58 yards.

Hands full with running backs Damien Williams and Spencer Ware, who have helped fill the void created when Kareem Hunt was released after week 11. Williams notched 103 yards on 13 carries in a 38-31 loss at Seattle in week 16.

Mahomes, Kelce and Hill were first-team All-Pro selections, and major contributors as the Chiefs’ offense piled up 565 points, the third-highest total in NFL history.

“Yeah, just their weapons,’’ Eberflus said. “They’ve got several All-Pro players . . . and a lot of players that didn’t get that recognition. A lot of skill on that side of the ball for them.’’

Andy Reid and coordinator Eric Bienemy have maximized that talent with creative personnel groupings, alignments and play calling.

“The scheme’s a little bit unique, too, in terms of what they do and how they do it,’’ Erberflus said. “They really spread the field horizontally and vertically with your defense and make you tackle in space.

“That’s what they do.’’

If a defense failed to wrap up in the open field, the Chiefs capitalized. They led the league with 2,649 yards after the catch.

Despite the Chiefs’ array of offensive weapons, the Colts plan on spending the week sharpening what they do.

“It’s ‘us’ oriented,’’ Eberflus said. “When you play a squad like this, the focus goes more to you than it ever should. I know that may sound backwards, but it’s not to me and our staff.

“We have to focus on our fundamentals, on what we do and how we do it and that’s the most important thing when you play a team of this caliber.’’

As we mentioned, the Colts ain’t seen nothin’ like this.

During their 11-game streak, they’ve faced:

  • Only one quarterback ranked higher than 13th in the league. That was Houston’s Deshaun Watson (No. 6 with a 103.1 passer rating). Dallas’ Dak Prescott was 14th. Others included Blake Bortles, Derek Anderson, Eli Manning, Cody Kessler, Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr.
  • Only one offense ranked in the top-11 in scoring. Again, that was Houston (25.1). A sampling of the others: Miami (31st), Buffalo (30th), Jacksonville (27th), Tennessee (25th) and Oakland (23rd).

And now, the Chiefs and Mahomes.

“It’s going to be a big challenge for us,’’ Eberflus said.

Busy weekend

Eberflus’ ability to compartmentalize came in handy the day after the Colts posted their wild-card win at Houston. His Sunday chores included reviewing the Houston video, coming up with the game plan for the Chiefs and interviewing with the Cleveland Browns for their open head coaching position.

He admitted it was a “unique’’ situation.

“What you try to do is segment things into boxes so you can focus and hone in on what you’re talking about, what you’re doing.’’ Eberflus said. “Come in in the morning and focus on putting the (Texans) game to rest, then jump right into the first- and second-down run game for Kansas City, meet with the coaches, then do your thing (the Browns interview, which was) off at a different site, then come back and start hammering again and hone in on your job, which is for the Colts and doing your job here as the defensive coordinator.’’

Does he feel behind in his preparation for the Chiefs?

“No, not at all,’’ he said.

The long day, Eberflus added, was a “normal day for an NFL coach. Get up early and go to bed late. That’s the way it is during the season, but we love that.’’